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Evolutionary Psychology and "Natural Morality"

by Dr. Dale Glaebach

(NOTE: This paper has been posted with permission from the author as a courtesy to readers and is not the work of this website's owner).

A new branch of evolutionary science offers that there is such a thing as a universal "natural morality" underlying the various moral belief systems relative to each culture and subculture. Still very controversial, this idea was announced and defended in two compilations of essays entitled, respectively, Evolutionary Ethics (Nitecki & Nitecki 1993) and Issues in Evolutionary Ethics (Thompson 1995). Due to the almost constant state of danger in which the original nomadic family member had to live, the need for almost continuous cooperation was vitally necessary for his survival. Faced with the greater agility, swiftness, and the rapier-like claws and teeth of predators who were often larger is size, humankind as a species only survived because of its ability to work together cooperatively. John Beckstrom, in his book Darwinism Applied, sums up the typical behaviors necessary for survival of the tribe ---i.e. "natural morality"--- with the succinct phrase "give aid/don't harm" (Beckstrom 1993, 27). Thus, natural morality would judge behavior that works to harm others as "doing wrong"; and behavior that works to help others as "doing right". Acts done that would fall in between these two lines of demarcation (ex. eating, sleeping, moving about) are, necessarily, neither wrong nor right. They are just neutral, amoral acts.

Over the millennia, what were typical, naturally moral behaviors became ingrained in our psyche through the gradual development of emotions specifically designed to promote these behaviors. Humankind evolved a "moral sense" --a sense of "guilt" from doing wrong by hurting others, and "gratification" from doing right by helping others. These emotions and cooperative tendencies became “hard-wired” into an innate human trait that is part of our genetic heritage.
The emotions which cemented the band are still alive in all normal human beings. These emotions have a direct impact on our thinking. Whether we want to or not, the brain tends to keep track of what we owe others and what others owe us...A sense of what is "fair" automatically incorporates itself into almost everyone's world view (Glantz and Pearce 1986, 34-5).
Considering that, in order for each tribal member to assure his own survival, he had to act “for the good of the tribe” and that this behavior continued for the millions of years necessary for evolutionary hard-wiring to occur, Dr. Glantz and Dr. Pearce assert, in a major break from the "Social Darwinist" legacy:
There is now no reason to believe that humans are essentially selfish...The study of evolution indicates that empathy, helpfulness and cooperativeness are basic human traits. (Glantz and Pearce 1986, 34).
Additionally, humans were not subject to undue preoccupation with material acquisitions. The reason for this is clear when we consider the basic limitations of living within a nomadic tribe. If one hunter-gatherer would admire an article of property possessed by another, the likely response would be: “Fine, so would you like to carry it for awhile?” Since they were always “on the move”, the desire for personal property was severely curtailed in hunter-gatherer life. Thus, for the two millions years of nomadic family life that describe the vast majority of human experience, material acquisitions were viewed as nothing but a burden. Original nomadic family members were, first and foremost, concerned about their relationships with other family members and how they could be helpful to each other. Unfortunately, our innate natural morality is now regularly frustrated by the modern "human zoo" environment in which we have placed ourselves. It was only when the agricultural revolution occurred, and excess grain could be stored, that the acquisition of property could become a major issue: now, there was something that could be stolen and, thus, needed to be protected. We needed “the police”! In the modern zoo, we have found a need to install a system of justice, primarily, to enforce this minimum standard of not “harming others” -- a standard that was "automatic" to the hunter-gatherer band. [For a book length analysis of the impact of evolutionary theory on law and justice, one may consult Evolutionary Jurisprudence (Beckstrom 1989).]

Looking now at the higher requirement of natural morality, i.e. “doing right” by helping others, the principle of “reciprocal altruism” is part of the basic evolutionary theory of human nature.
In modern institutions we can see more remnants of reciprocity. For example, duty and obligation can be understood as codified, rigidified, forms of reciprocity... Most religions echo this primeval wisdom. The New Testament states: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Glantz and Pearce 1986, 35).
Just as the system of justice was created as to enforce the "minimum" standard in the post hunter-gatherer world, it was also necessary for some form of ethics to become infused with religion (via the concept of a punitive, authoritarian God) so as to shepherd us into following the higher standard; the "Golden Rule", as it has appeared in the various cultural forms throughout the world. It can also be seen that the “Golden Rule” directing each of us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is synonymous with the basic natural morality that is our ancient heritage. What each of us would have others “do unto” us is simply not to harm us, but, rather, to help us when we are in serious need.

This, then, is the basic of natural morality revealed by the new Evolutionary Psychology. Dr. Masters notes that, beyond “mere relativism...evolutionary theory provides a standard against which human behavior can be measured” (Masters 1983, 188).


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